The Seattle Seahawks’ improbable comeback from a 31-0 halftime deficit came up just short against the Carolina Panthers, ending their season short of a third consecutive NFC Championship and trip to Super Bowl.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Russell Wilson exhorted his Seahawks teammates, appealing to their competitiveness.
“This is going to be the best comeback of all time if we can find a way,’’ he told them after they fell behind 31-0 and even the notion of victory seemed impossible.
There was no history to be made for the Seahawks, however. In their 31-24 NFC divisional playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers, they would wind up as just another team falling short after digging too deep a hole.
What they did, at least, was stave off the humiliation that seemed headed their way in a first half of stunning ineptitude and ineffectiveness.
That couldn’t prolong their season, or dim the sense of emptiness after two straight Super Bowl years. But the restoration of pride by the NFL’s most prideful team was the only victory they could claim.
“Guys battled, even to last second when they took a knee,’’ said defensive end Michael Bennett. “We were still trying to get ball.”
Seattle’s troubles began when the ball fell off the tee just as Steven Hauschka was about to boot the opening kickoff. On the first snap of the game, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart bolted 59 yards — and it went downhill from there for the Seahawks.
They trailed by an almost inconceivable 31-0 margin at halftime. Wilson’s “best comeback of all time” appeal wouldn’t have been literally correct — the Buffalo Bills had overcome a 35-3 deficit to Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers in the wild-card round of the 1992-93 playoffs, one point deeper of a hole — but that’s a quibble. By all appearances, the Seahawks were dead and buried, and the Panthers were preparing to take a team selfie at the grave.
“Well, we made a mess of it in the first half,’’ Pete Carroll began his post-game media session, cutting to the heart of the matter.
If it looked vaguely familiar, you might have been having a flashback to Super Bowl XLVIII, only with Seattle playing the role of the Denver Broncos by being completely dominated and seemingly powerless to stop the onslaught. Never before in the Carroll and Wilson playoff years have we seen the Seahawks so much at the mercy of their opponent and so much of a contributor to their own demise.
The explanations for what went so very wrong were both tangible and esoteric — just as they were for the comeback that followed. Linebacker Bruce Irvin said the Seahawks came out flat, though some other players didn’t feel that way. Many defenders noted that they slipped on the recently resod turf at Bank of America Stadium on Stewart’s run, necessitating cleat changes before the next Carolina drive.
“They executed off our mistakes — point blank period,’’ Seahawks center Patrick Lewis said.
Wilson took the blame for his two deadly interceptions — one returned 14 yards for by Luke Kuechly for a touchdown — that gave the first indication something was very, very wrong with the Seahawks. And the mounting deficit made the much-discussed return of running back Marshawn Lynch largely moot, as they had to switch to a pass-first, hurry-up offense.
“I feel real bad for Marshawn, because he’s been waiting to come back all season,’’ Lewis said. “He comes back, and we go out there and lay another egg in the first half.”
But perhaps the best description of Seattle’s early debacle was given by safety Earl Thomas, who described the “very weird energy” emanating from the team in the first half.
That changed in the second half, sparked by a fiery halftime speech by Doug Baldwin that Jermaine Kearse said focused on “holding on to each other and sticking with one another.” Thomas’ mantra as the comeback mounted was to just find a way to get the game to overtime — and then “it’s over,’’ he said.
“Just heart, desire, will,’’ Irvin added in explaining Seattle’s turnaround in the second half, in which they outscored Carolina 24-0. “Just not going out like this. … Some of these guys, including me, it might be our last time with this team. We wanted to go out and leave it all out there for each other.”
Carroll noted that “sometimes halftime is the best thing that happens to us.” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said just the opposite, that the Panthers wish they could have just continued playing without any break at all.
“We regroup, we make adjustments, our guys get refocused and centered, and that’s been happening for a long time,’’ Carroll said. “None of us are that surprised that it was what happened in the second half. Unfortunately, it was not enough.”
This Seahawks season will ultimately be remembered as one in which they didn’t do enough, in a variety of areas. Not enough to gain the vital home-field advantage in the playoffs, not enough to vanquish a Carolina team that will battle Arizona here next Sunday for a trip to Super Bowl 50 and for NFC supremacy.
That’s a distinction that no longer belongs to Seattle after a two-year reign as NFC champions.
But the Seahawks made sure that Sunday will not be remembered as the day they unraveled, or surrendered. It’s nowhere near as satisfying as a victory, but right now, it’s all they’ve got.